“Celling Your Soul” Increasingly Relevant

September 21, 2017

Late last month, as summer began to wind down and students across the nation prepared to return to classrooms, the newly perennial debate bubbled up again over the role of digital technology (smartphones in particular) in the lives of American teens. And while the discussion is not an entirely new one, its urgency seemed more pronounced as media outlets like The Atlantic pondered the question of  “Have Smartphones Destroyed a Generation?,” (September 2017).

Filmmaker, writer, professor, and FC member Joni Siani began considering that question some years ago, as she observed first-hand the love/hate relationship her college students had with their digital devices. Tired of the stale debates, couched in terms of pros and cons, Siani opted to encourage her students to share how they felt about the role of omnipresent digital technology in their lives rather than what they thought. Did the technology make them feel closer to, or more isolated from, their friends and family? Was the phenomenon of instant communication liberating or stifling? And did living their lives, nearly 24/7, in a digital ecosystem feel like a gift or a burden?

These questions formed the backbone of an insightful, revealing and collaborative effort that gave birth to a book, a documentary and now, a movement. Celling Your Soul took home the 2015 Best Documentary award at the Boston International Kids Film Festival (BIKFF) and will be shown in a streamlined, newly edited version, on September 27 at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline, MA as part of The Boston Globe’s “Globe Docs” series.

We recently caught up with Joni Siani to talk about what’s been happening since the film’s debut in 2015 and how the film is just one element of her “No App for Life” campaign. Joni explained, “No App For Life” is about balance. “First, we’re elevating the dialogue beyond the reductive and limiting discussions of ‘technology’ being either good or bad. School officials are struggling with creating policy, procedures and protocols, and we have yet to have an honest national discourse of ‘best practices’ that includes the addictive nature, psychological implications of childhood development, social skills, and interpersonal relationships. We keep looking at the device itself, without the deeper conversation of what IT is doing TO us.”

“Celling Your Soul” has now been featured in more than 14 film festivals and continues to garner praise and spawn intense discussion whenever it is screened. Siani explained that she was not interested in making a film — or leading a campaign — around dry academic discussions about the impact of what she calls the “connection industry,” but wanted to explore — through the words of her students — the profound affect digital socialization is having on teens’ emotional landscape. In her view, cell phones are “engineered to be addictive and we can’t keep turning a blind eye to this reality. This is not only engineered addiction, it is engineered manipulation.”

Schools, community groups, civic organizations and companies are encouraged to book screenings and discussions, led by Joni, through her “No App for Life” website. And everyone is invited to attend the Globe Docs screening on September 27.